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A Room for Music 

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
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HAROLD BUDDThe Room (Atlantic)

Speak of musical rooms, and you will eventually end up in the room that begins Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. The protagonist has one phonograph in the ”hole in the basement“ where he lives, but he plans to have five. Though the room is overglowing with light -- it‘s lit by 1,369 bulbs charged by stolen electric-company power -- it is sonically impoverished. ”There is an acoustical deadness in my hole,“ he admits, ”and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my eyes but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue’ -- all at the same time.“

Literature boasts of many such rooms (Gregor Samsa‘s silent insect bedroom shut off from his sister’s human violin, Bucky Wunderlick‘s Great Jones Street apartment, which doubles as an ambient-noise chamber), rooms where space and sound come together to tell us volumes about how we live and how we inhabit the worlds we wake up in. They are rooms that remind us that our everyday sensory experience of ourselves -- of our limits, our possibilities, our crimes -- is shaped by the audio architecture that is imposed upon us or, as in the case of Ellison’s narrator, that we create for ourselves.

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In a recent bookCD dedicated to this idea, Site of Sound: Of Architecture & the Ear (Errant Bodies), edited by Brandon LaBelle and Steve Roden, German sound artist Rolf Julius campaigns for rooms he dubs ”rooms of stillness“ that are simple and empty and cultivate rest, quiet and calm. His own installation piece Chamber Music No. 1 took a small white room and inserted two white rectangular columns wired with loudspeakers. There was a chair in the middle where the listener could sit -- back turned to the speakers, eyes turned to the river and the bridge out the window.

The impossible utopia of the still room hit composer Harold Budd in Florence, when he peered into the Museo Marino Marini and found it empty and without light, rooms once meant for the interaction of visitors and the display of treasured medieval objects, now haunted by their absence, nothing but stairs, alcoves and windows. In response (and with extra inspiration from a Tony Bevan painting), he has created The Room, an album of 13 audio blueprints for imaginary spatial construction. But because these are studio compositions for the ear and not actual rooms filled with sound, Budd makes the listener think about the architecture of sound itself, not so much about how sound changes a room or structures it (how Armstrong gives life to the deadness of Ellison‘s invisible hole), but how sound conjures its own spaces and habitats. The title of each piece is meant to guide us -- ”The room of ancillary dreams,“ ”The room of accidental geometry,“ ”The room of forgotten children,“ ”The candied room“ -- and to some extent they do, forcing us to take what we hear and interpret it in light of the given frame. (Exactly what is it about these piano lines that suggests abandoned kids?) But mostly they take on lives of their own: Some are full and dense, others ominous and possessive; some glisten with drops of light, others with clouds of grace, others with solitude and doom. All of them feel warm, and all emerge slowly, note by note, corner by corner.

I’ve been playing The Room in the main room of my house, and the music indeed takes me somewhere else, to other rooms in which I am not sitting, rooms that don‘t have piles of unpaid bills, or tabletops covered in scribbled notes, moldy coffee cups and too many remote controls. Rather than actual rooms, Budd’s music takes you to emotional rooms or psychic rooms, and allows you to feel, in the space of four or five minutes, a new way of being in a space you‘ve never been before.

budd, chapman baehler; harvey, maria Mochnacz

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